Financial Goals

How to vacation in San Diego on a budget

Photo: iStockphoto

Vacationing in San Diego is the ideal of California fun. The weather is mild most of the year, with plenty of activities for singles and couples, families and friends, and the restaurants just keep getting better. And this spring, with deals and discounts being offered through the city, is the time to visit.

It is easiest to think of San Diego as a few small towns – where you stay depends on what you plan to do while visiting. If surfing La Jolla Cove is on the list, locate yourself in La Jolla village or nearby Del Mar. If you are interested in nightlife or have a conference to attend, downtown will be your location, with plenty of retail therapy options. Organizing your trip geographically means less time in the car and more time vacationing.

Downtown

Take public transportation to Balboa Park and enjoy one of the 14 museums including the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. If you plan to visit Balboa Park more than one day (easy to do, there is so much to see), the Passport to Balboa Park ($45 for adults, $24 for children 3-12) offers significant savings. On Sundays, enjoy free concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs!

Explore the nightlife of the Gaslamp Quarter, once the stomping ground of the legendary Wyatt Earp. During the day, enjoy a stroll through the historic neighborhood and take in the unique shops and restaurants. And if you desire a shopping mall to keep you occupied, Horton Plaza is a half block away.

Go west, towards the water, and check out the Museum of Contemporary Art, with locations in both downtown San Diego and La Jolla, which offers free daily admission for guests 25 years and younger (regular general admission $10). Further on, explore Seaport Village, the Navy Pier and the Maritime Museum. The San Diego Trolley is a convenient way to get around ($2.50/ride; day passes available for $5).

Look for accommodations near the historic Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and around scenic San Diego Bay. Discount options include 500 West (starting at $59/night), La Pensione ($75/night) and Hotel Occidental near Balboa Park ($49/night). Upscale hotels include W San Diego (starting at $165/night), Park Manor Suites ($172/night) and Hotel Solamar ($212/night).

Downtown dining runs the gamut from long-time favorites Athens Market Taverna (average $29/person) and Anthony’s Fish Grotto ($28/person), to contemporary restaurants including Bandar (Persian cuisine; $34/person) and Anthology (California cuisine, $49/person).

Pacific and Mission Beaches, La Jolla

Spend your vacation along the coast– playing in the ocean, windsurfing in the bay, visiting Sea World (check out MouseSavers for discount ticket ideas) and Old Town San Diego. Rent a bike or rollerblades ($20 for the day) and spend the day cruising up and down the 3-mile long Mission Beach Boardwalk between Mission and Pacific Beach. Watch the sea lions and harbor seals along the shoreline in La Jolla, and stay for the sunsets. Or learn to surf or SCUBA at La Jolla Shores and Cove. At Mission Bay Park, enjoy a family picnic and kite-flying. Or hike along the Torrey Pines State Reserve to view the unique pine tree as well as glorious beaches (some clothing optional).

Shop around for lodging to find the best deal – hotels around Mission Bay can be less expensive than those along the ocean, and most are family-friendly, including Bahia Resort (rooms from $155/night), Hilton San Diego Resort and Spa ($179/night) and The Dana on Mission Bay ($198/night). On the ocean side there’s the Surfer Beach Hotel ($130/night) and the Ocean Park Inn ($179/night).

In La Jolla, confirm the location of the hotel before booking – La Jolla runs from the north part of Pacific Beach, up along the coast and over the mountain towards the University of California San Diego. Many of the hotels in La Jolla are really in University Town Center (UTC), close to campus but a drive to the beach. Look for hotels in downtown La Jolla, near La Jolla Boulevard, Prospect and Pearl Streets, including Hotel La Jolla at the Shores ($129/night), Best Western Plus Inn By The Sea ($135/night) and The Grand Colonial Hotel ($200/night).

Restaurants in Mission Beach and Pacific Beach cater to the young college crowd from nearby University of California, San Diego, University of San Diego and San Diego State. Therefore, inexpensive options are widely available, including California’s ubiquitous In-N-Out Burger (average $9/person), Kono’s Café for breakfast and burgers ($11/person), and La Playa Taco Shop ($10/person). For upscale options, consider Sushi Ota ($50/person), The Fishery ($36/person) and Costa Brava ($36/person).

Del Mar, Carlsbad and North County

Further north in San Diego County, visitors enjoy the relaxed and laid-back attitude of the area, with attractions including the Del Mar Racetrack, Legoland (check Mousesavers for discount ideas) and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly the San Diego Wild Animal Park). Del Mar is a beautiful little town, with boutique shopping and fine dining. Solana Beach, Cardiff-By-The-Sea, Encinitas and Carlsbad all have a fun beach vibe and well-maintained coastal areas. Up in Oceanside, the California Surf Museum houses a permanent collection of historic boards, photographs and videos. Explore its colorful and educational display on the sport of surfing and the legends who braved the waters.

Affordable accommodations are found at the Best Western Stratford Inn ($122/night) and Clarion Del Mar Inn ($103/night). Near Legoland, family-friendly hotel options include West Inn & Suites (rooms from $164/night), Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel ($139/night plus resort fees) and Carlsbad By the Sea Resort ($99/night). If the park is your destination, look for hotels with free shuttle service and avoid extra parking charges.

One of the benefits, dining-wise, of the north-coast of San Diego County is the great variety of taco stands and casual eateries. Stop at one along Pacific Coast Highway 101 and indulge in authentic burrito tasting. Favorites include Raul’s in Encinatas, Rudy’s Taco Shop in Solana Beach, and Juanitas Taco Shop in Leucadia (best chili relleno burritos on the coast).

Gudrun Enger is a travel, food and lifestyle blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @kitchengirl on Twitter.